Fear and loathing: the creatures that never blink

Last night the streets were full of trick-or-treaters dressed as Hallowe'en ghouls. But what are we celebrating when we act out our worst fears? Gordon Grice thinks it may have something to do with spiders
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This is a story about fear. The trees were unusually lush around my house one muggy summer. They formed a vista of cool, spiky greens and duskier shades that collected the shadows. When the sun set I never saw the stars, only the dark with its green highlights. One night I looked out of the window, and saw my reflection looking back at me, and within it a set of wild, pink eyes. Beneath the pink gaze a tapered snout grinned to show sparse, wicked teeth, thin as finishing nails. It was a white opossum.

First I shrieked in terror. Then I went outside to get a closer look. The opossum clung to a stout elm which stood in a flower bed. The bed overflowed with wandering Jew, with soft leaves like the tongues of puppies. Thy were profuse, crowding each other like serpents on the head of a Gorgon, leaning out over the cement walk.

The opossum surveyed me with the perfect circles of its psychotic eyes before it began a leisurely climb into higher foliage and darkness. I never saw it again. I think of it now as the spark that ignited my meditations on fear not only because it scared me, but also because it led me to an accidental discovery.

Something in the strip of wandering Jew below caught my eye. It seemed to be a scatter of little emeralds. They gleamed steadily until my body blocked the porch light. In my shadow the emeralds took on a different lustre. They dimmed, and the lights shifted to one side. The emeralds were profuse, impossible to count, scattered through that entire dreaming bed of green. Eyes, I realised with a start. The eyes of spiders.

I recognised them because a few days earlier the flowerbed had been transformed. Half a dozen handkerchiefs of white silk had appeared on the green run. I knew they were spiders' webs, of course, but paid them no attention until the opossum incident. Then I observed the patches more closely. A field guide told me they were the work of funnel-web spiders. These, big enough to straddle the face of a pocket watch, shouldn't be confused with the dangerous Australian funnel-web spiders; they're no relation. These are related to the ordinary English house spider. The funnel would be in an upper corner of the sloping web, near the foundation of the house, sometimes partly concealed by an overhang of green and purple leaves.

The weeks progressed. The patches of silk collected dust. They aged, acquiring irregular lumps and dimpled imperfections where insects had landed and been ambushed. Often an untidy spider left a few insect legs lying on the sheet. In one web a hammock shaped like a human grave formed over the body of some black creature. Too much trouble to drag it over the web's edge - the spider had simply built over it. The stems that supported the webs eventually sagged, their leaves withering as the webs starved them of light.

One evening I followed a robber fly along the flowerbed. Robber flies are largish predators about the size of a cigarette butt. They eat flying insects. This one, with its enormous, unblinking eyes, was probably looking for mosquitoes. Its shoulders, furred with a brown-grey down, were massive, giving the creature the look of a miniature bison. Its slender, black legs were curved for catching prey. When the robber fly touched down, I would try to approach it in the hope of getting a better look. But I couldn't get too close; it would take to the air at my first step.

I followed it around from leaf to leaf, making my movements ever more subtle, but never subtle enough to escape its notice. Eventually it landed on a funnel-web. When it lifted off again, it fell back to the web as if it had been shot. It had slammed into a mesh of silken guy-wires rising from the sheet, the filaments of which were invisible until the collision made them vibrate.

The sheet began to shake. The spider was coming.

I looked at the funnel, and out of it poured a hairy grey spider with long black stripes. Its abdomen was an ovoid that seemed tight and ripe as a September plum.

Nightmares and terrors. I remembered a time when I was too small to talk well. It is one of my earliest memories. I stood on a stool at the bathroom sink, brushing my teeth. Out of the little overflow hole came a robust spider, black and orange, its dark legs scrabbling for purchase on the porcelain. I could not make my parents understand what I had seen. They sent me back to finish brushing my teeth. The spider was gone, and I brushed with my gaze fixed on the overflow hole in terror. Years later my mother said that the old house was always full of spiders. She had been relaxing in the bathtub one night, she recalled, and a spider had come out of the overflow hole to walk across the water towards her. It seemed quite large at eye level, she added.

The grey, hirsute devil rising from the funnel struck fear into me. It killed the robber fly with a bite to the head. Soon the spider had dragged his prey into the funnel. I sat and watched, but all I could see were dark masses and an occasional shadowy scrabbling of legs. In the morning the robber fly was litter near the web's fringe.

The opossum and the spider both scared me, for no good reason I could think of. An opossum can bite and may carry rabies, but the same is true of a poodle. Funnel spiders bite people, but usually less sharply than an ant.

This month my three-year-old son and his cousins have been decorating the house for Hallowe'en, drawing spiders and bats and human skulls to hang in the windows. I've been recalling the summer of scary eyes, and wondering again why we shiver at the sight of things not especially dangerous. My son has a book full of animals. When relatives read it to him they respond with shudders to the pictures of spiders, centipedes, bats, rodents, and snakes. Photographs of genuinely dangerous animals - leopards, say, or cape buffalo - don't scare anyone.

It's a paradox. Maybe most of us in the western world have so little experience of dangerous animals that we can only fear harmless ones. Maybe our parents train us to fear crawling things. Maybe a useful instinctive fear of a few dangerous creatures, like the black widow spider and the rattlesnake, has generalised to include blander vermin. A herpetologist once suggested, as we watched his three-metre pet python crush a chicken, that we sympathise with the prey, and therefore have at least a residual tingle of fear of the predator. That idea seemed plausible until I walked home and saw a robin standing on the grass with a worm struggling in its beak. I couldn't work up even a hint of fear towards the robin, and had to reject the predator hypothesis.

Arachnophobics may perceive spiders as having an immense and uncountable number of legs. One woman told me that the sight of a spider, particularly a large or dark one, gave her the idea that spiders everywhere were plotting against her, hoping to hide themselves in her sandwiches, perhaps scheming to crawl out of the overflow hole when she's in the tub. I didn't tell her about my mother's adventure. The woman knew her beliefs were unrealistic, but that didn't make them go away.

I have a hypothesis of my own, which is that scary animals don't blink enough. In the lexicon of human body language, staring usually means anger or malice. I suggest some scary animals give us the sensation of meeting an unblinking gaze. Think of snakes, which lack moveable eyelids, and therefore seem to stare continually. Picture my unblinking pink-eyed opossum. Remember the glittering gems of spiders' eyes in the dark. And consider the tarantula, the ultimate in arachnophobia. A tarantula has two hairy clusters of eyes on its head. Those eyes probably watch for the shadows of predatory birds; they're too simple to serve for much else. But they do seem to stare you down.

Or perhaps the fear of creeping things is even more basic. When we meet the emerald gaze of a spider in the dark, we're forced to remember that modern life is newfangled. Older kinds of life dwell all around us, and their alien presences point out and emphasise that the world doesn't work according to human designs.

That's scary.

The Red Hourglass by Gordon Grice is published by Penguin Press, pounds 14.99